Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #1

Huzzah! We have arrived at long last at the end of the list of my top ten role-playing games. As is traditional with this sort of thing, let's run down the list before we get to my favourite rpg.

Unless you're reading this via a feed or Google Plus, in which case the preview image probably gave it away. Oh well.

#10 - Dragonlance: Fifth Age
#9 - Fighting Fantasy
#8 - Shadowrun
#7 - Cold City
#6 - Lamentations of the Flame Princess
#5 - 13th Age
#4 - Savage Worlds
#3 - Pendragon
#2 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

At number one, of course, is Call of Cthulhu, which is only appropriate given that it's the best role-playing game ever according to both rpggeek and the arcane magazine poll that inspired this series of posts in the first place. I am being facetious, but only a little, because it is my favourite rpg ever and has been since I first played it.

My group at school knew of another group a couple of years above us, in the nigh-mythical Sixth Form. We didn't mix with them -- they had cars and didn't even wear uniforms! -- but somehow we got in touch with Dave, and he had such sights to show us! He introduced us to RuneQuest and Cyberpunk 2020 and Star Wars -- the latter only played once because of a misunderstanding in which Dave thought we hated it for some reason -- and Call of Cthulhu.

My memories of that first session are vivid. Dave lived in what seemed like an ancient cottage -- it wasn't -- in what seemed like the middle of nowhere -- it wasn't -- and it was the perfect setting to introduce a bunch of impressionable teenagers to horror gaming. We played "The Haunting" because everyone starts with that -- unless they start with the upcoming seventh edition, but that's an exasperated sigh for another day -- and it was wonderful. Characters were thrown out of windows while my character tried to deflect attention by claiming that it was a comedy film in production, someone got possessed and shot someone else in the back, and in the end the haunted house was burned to the ground, as I suspect happens in the majority of attempts at the adventure.

It was great fun but it was also scary, in part because we were playing it in the dark in the middle of the countryside and in part because it was the first time we'd played a horror game. There were no monsters to hit and no special powers to use to our advantage so we felt more vulnerable than we had in any other game up until then, and we had no idea what we were facing, and to use an appropriate quote, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

That first game had quite the effect. We pestered Dave to run more adventures and the discarded sheets of dead or insane characters piled up. I bought three thick Lovecraft collections, and grappled with his baroque prose, a trial which didn't do much for me but impressed my English teacher. We all rushed out and bought copies of the rulebook and Tim ran some games, then Paul ran a couple -- including another creepy adventure played out in the boondocks -- and Stephen ran a few, and then I ran Horror on the Orient Express for a year for two different groups. We played the heck R'lyeh out of this game and some of my happiest gaming memories -- and all of the scary ones -- happened while playing. My current group likes D&D a lot so we've played a great deal of that in the years I've been part of it but that aside, I've played Call of Cthulhu more than any other rpg and I will never get bored of it.

Do I need to describe the system? It's been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out -- how appropriate -- and hasn't changed much so I'm sure everyone knows about it by now, but if not, guess what? It's quite simple! It's more or less RuneQuest with most of the fiddly bits taken out and is based on percentile skills, so is intuitive enough to be easy for even newcomers to grasp; I've introduced a few people to role-playing using the game, as everyone understands what Persuade 65% means, and the resistance table aside everything is on the character sheet and there are no hidden player mechanics.

Player-characters are normal folk rather than the specialists or heroes of most other rpgs, and are as such somewhat fragile, becoming incapacitated through injury and -- more often -- insanity; the latter mechanic is often derided as "mental hit points" and while it may not present a nuanced and realistic view of mental health it does the job for a game about librarians and archaeologists fighting ancient evil gods, is consistent with the source material, and once again it's presented in a simple and transparent manner that anyone can understand.

Of course, since the game has been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and hasn't changed much it is a bit clunky in places, but just like a vintage car -- another motoring metaphor? -- a bit of affectionate tinkering gets it up and running and it's so light a system that there isn't much work required. I'm sure that my years of play mean that even I have managed to memorise at least some of the rules but I find I can run the game with a character sheet as a reference and that's a good sign, as it means the system gets out of the way and I can concentrate on the mystery and the horror, like that time that I got the players screaming in disbelief as an axe-wielding maniac started swinging at their characters.

I love this game to bits. It works for long campaigns -- I don't think it's as much of a character killer as some suggest, although I have heard stories of some proper meat grinders -- and it's an amazing fit for a one-shot scenario for a dark winter's night. It's a game in which the players feel actual relief when they finish an adventure, and the only game in which I've experienced actual fear. I have played it almost every year for almost two decades and I hope that I continue to play it for years to come until the stars are right.

Next: nothing! We're finished! I'm sorry it took so long but I hope it was a worthwhile and interesting series.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #2

If you've been reading this series since the start you may have been wondering when this game would be coming up; after all I've already expressed my love for Fighting Fantasy and mentioned my dalliances with Games Workshop, so there was a certain inevitability about the appearance in the top ten of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

WFRP is a bit of an orphan. Games Workshop had a great deal of early success selling role-playing games but almost all were reprints -- albeit handsome ones -- of existing products. I'm sure someone will pop up in the comments and tell me about something I've forgotten -- I know both Inquisitor and Warhammer Quest have rpg elements, and more on the latter in the new year -- but as I recall the only home grown rpgs GW produced were Judge Dredd and WFRP; both got a couple of years in the sun but the latter was released just as the company was moving over to miniature-based war games and not even the Warhammer name was enough to save it from cancellation. WFRP retained a healthy and enthusiastic fanbase and popped up again at the now-defunct Hogshead, then a second edition was again published by Games Workshop before again being axed. Fantasy Flight Games released a third edition with a different ruleset but also produced a big pile of Warhammer 40,000 rpgs that used the same system as the second edition. At the time of writing the game is once again in limbo. It's all a confusing mess and it's a wonder that I managed to play the thing at all.

I had been reading White Dwarf since 1991 so I knew about WFRP from the occasional article -- even then they were becoming more sporadic -- but I didn't get to play it for the first time until around 1997. I remember being intimidate by the size of the rulebook -- larger than anything else I'd seen at the time -- and the dense and teeny tiny text. My friend Chris took the challenge of running the game and we made it through some of The Enemy Within before we stopped, I think through a combination of the group splitting -- university beckoned -- and the rest of the campaign being out of print at the time. Still, it was good fun and it set the tone for how I see the game to this day.

WFRP is often characterised as either horror-fantasy or -- more often -- as grim and dark and po-faced but I don't think either is true. Yes characters can be fragile, and yes it is possible to die of an infected stab wound, and yes it seems as if everything in the world is out to kill the player-characters, but a bit of murder and demon daemon summoning in the first chapter of the game's iconic campaign -- er, SPOILER -- has given the wrong impression of what is to my eye a comedy game.

Almost every name in the game is a pun or joke based on poor German translation; the dwarves have mohawks; the orcs are the Hulk as played by Ray Winstone; almost all of the player-characters are going to be working class oiks and if any of them are nobles they are probably idiots or drunks or both; any scheme, for good or ill, is bound to fail due to someone's incompetence; and in a fight no one can hit anything but if they do the damage will probably multiply so when they try to knock out the watchman in Bogenhafen they instead end up splattering him across the sewer wall. Oops.

What it is, you see, is Blackadder does D&D. How anyone can think it's supposed to be a serious game I don't know.

My favourite version of the game in terms of mechanics is the second edition; in polishing some of the rough edges of the first edition some of the game's unique personality is also lost but I do think it is the better game and as I tend to run it based on my own jumbled conception of the setting circa 1988 it all balances out. As should not be a huge shock to anyone at this point I like the simplicity of the system; it's based on percentile rolls against the characters' attributes, with skills and abilities modifying the rolls rather than having values of their own. There is a bit of wonky design in that one has to remember what Strike Mighty Blow -- for example -- does in terms of actual numbers but whenever I run the game I cheat and use simplified non-player-character statistics with all that stuff built in so it's not an issue from my end, and the idea at least is an elegant one.

The magic system is great fun; wizards have to roll dice to generate the energy they need to cast spells but as it is WFRP there is always a chance of something going wrong, from all milk in the locality curdling to a daemon crawling out of the caster's ears and laying waste to everything in sight. Spellcasters feel as dangerous to play as the superstitious folk of the setting believe them to be and with that danger comes a thrill, although it is perhaps best suited to the more reckless player. I was lucky enough to have just such a player when I ran the updated-but-not-really-related Enemy Within and his character ended up with a flaming skull head, umpteen fingers on each hand, and a long, skeletal trunk. As you do.

In stark contrast to most of the games on the top ten so far I do play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay quite often; it's one of those games that everyone -- both in my group and the larger world -- seems to like so it's a surprise and shame that no one seems to be able to keep it in print. I hope to be playing it again in 2015, following the player-characters of The Enemy Within II as they enter the world of Imperial politics, because what could go wrong for a noble with a burning skull face?

Next: loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. Or something.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #3

I my last post I wrote about the folly of the generic role-playing game; in contrast the next entry in my top ten has a laser-like focus that brings with it a heap of restrictions and despite that Pendragon remains a superb game. Expansions and later editions would change some details but in the core game everyone plays a knight, everyone plays a man, and everyone plays a goodie; this should feel restrictive but it doesn't, in part because different backgrounds allow for even four English knights of about the same age to feel varied, and in part because that's the game, that's the genre, and if you've sat down to play at all then you've probably already made that first leap. Unless your gamemaster is a duplicitous sort. If so, sorry.

The game uses the familiar Chaosium system -- albeit using a d20 instead of a d100 for some reason I've never understood. -- and as a result the rules are simple and intuitive. Aside from the use of the wrong dice there are a couple of other major differences between Pendragon and its parent system, the first of which is its heavy use of personality mechanics.

Everyone is assumed to uphold the laws of chivalry to some extent so D&D style alignment is more or less irrelevant; you can be Sir Evil of Sodshire but you'll still act with honour, at least most of the time. Instead the game uses a system of virtues and passions, the former a set of twinned characteristics like Pious and Worldly and the latter stronger motivators like Loyalty, Love, or Hate. The virtues give an idea of what a knight's personality is like and a knight can claim bonuses if certain virtues have a high value; the downside is that with more extreme values comes a more extreme personality, which could cause trouble for the knight. Passions are the knight's core beliefs and they can be used to bolster a roll -- a character could use his Loyalty to Arthur give him a bonus on his Sword skill, for example --but in doing so he runs the risk of going mad if the roll goes wrong. It's a simple system and allows for a fair bit of player choice while also emulating the bonkers romanticism of the source material; if you want a game about blokes in plate armour falling in love with the wrong women and chopping up Saxons while in the grip of a mindless fury, then this is for you!

The other big difference between Pendragon and not only its Chaosiumish cousins but the wider world of rpgs is that down time between adventures is given as much importance as the adventures themselves. I had played plenty of games in which characters did stuff between adventures, whether it was researching old and musty spellbooks or investing in shady nightclubs, but Pendragon was the first rpg I ever played that used distinct phases of the sort common in board or war games. Such ideas are much more common now with games like Mouse Guard and The One Ring out there but when I first encountered the idea that role-playing games about adventuring knights could be about more than the adventures it seemed revolutionary.

Yes Pendragon's knights go on adventures but they only do so in the summer; the rest of the year they're attending feasts and tournaments, or running their estates, or wooing ladies, or raising children, or -- as always seemed to happen to us -- cross-breeding horses with their fey counterparts to create super hybrid steeds that could gallop at absurd speeds but only at night. We were teenagers.

Player-knights retire and die -- while adventuring, while hunting, or even in their sleep -- and Pendragon allows for play to continue through the characters' family trees; if a knight hasn't fathered a son -- or daughter in disguise -- then they're bound to have at least a brother or cousin to carry on the family name. In Pendragon a player doesn't run a single character but a whole family and the challenges the dynasty faces can be just as exciting as riding off to fight some Saxon raiders or investigate a magical tower. Again, the idea of playing an entire family line was something that I'd never encountered before -- unless one counts Paranoia -- and it was an exciting innovation.

I first encountered Pendragon in the mid 1990's and I have played it only a few times over the years decades but it was so much fun and so different to anything else I've played before or since that I have nothing but fondness for it. I would probably play it more often if the blasted thing stayed in print for more than five minutes every five years but even so my personal character sheet has a "Love (Pendragon)" score of at least 16 on it.

(The pictured first edition box was donated by friend of the blog Zain -- thanks Zain! -- but is alas incomplete so I am still looking questing for a playable copy.)

Next: grim and perilous adventure!

Friday, December 26, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #4

I'm not sure there's such a thing as a true generic role-playing game, although they gave it a jolly good try back in the 1990's. Any system brings with it certain assumptions of play that mean that it will be good at some things and not so good at others; just look at the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu with its tenth-level librarians. Even Fate -- a game that's suggested within five nanoseconds of someone posting a "What system should I use for this idea?" thread on -- has certain assumptions about storytelling styles built in that make it not the best match for, say, a tactical military type game.

The same is true of Savage Worlds, which is promoted as a system appropriate for all genres of role-playing but was derived from the first edition of Deadlands -- a supernatural western rpg -- and has always had a pulpy, action-based feel to it; it wouldn't be a good fit for court intrigue and political machinations, unless you're running a game about the Italian parliament:

That said, the relative failure of concept inherent in the game does not diminish my affection for it one bit. It is for the most part a light and simple ruleset and -- as I'm sure you're well aware and more than a little bored of being told by now -- I much prefer uncomplicated systems in my games. It's simple enough that it manages to squeeze a complete multi-genre rpg into fewer than two hundred pages -- as you'd expect, additional setting books expand on the rules, but all the basics are included -- and a game is always off to a good start with me if the whole thing fits into one volume; I'll have none of this artificial separation into player and gamemaster books, thank you. The current edition of the game comes in what they call an "Explorer's Edition" but the rest of the world calls "A5", the game book format of kings, and at just under seven quid one doesn't have to be a king to afford it.

With a few exceptions -- almost all of which are elsewhere in this top ten -- whenever I think of a new idea for a game, running it in Savage Worlds is my first thought. I've got notes here for Hellboy-style monster-hunting game, a post-apocalyptic hexcrawl full of radioactive mutants, World War II soldiers zipping around Europe in a tank searching for Nazi gold, and a modern gonzo pulpish thing inspired by lucha libre, Tarantino and Rodriguez, and the Wii game No More Heroes.

There are even some cases where a setting already has a system attached but I would supplant it cuckoo style with Savage Worlds; I've found that it's a great match for Eberron, despite my fondness for West End Games' d6 rules I've long pondered a Savage Star Wars game, and assuming one could bolt on a decent martial arts system -- an odd omission from the sizeable body of material published for the game -- I reckon that Savage Worlds would do a better job of Feng Shui than Feng Shui did.

Is a vast stack of unfinished campaign ideas a sign of a good role-playing game? I don't know, but the fact that Savage Worlds inspires me to such an extent must be a good sign. Anyway, it's a wonderful little game and it's one of the few entries in the list about which I have nothing negative to say; the only reason why it's not higher in the list is because my top three games are untouchable in their greatness.

Next: we're knights of the Round Table.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #5

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and-

Hang on, this is all a bit familiar.

If Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favourite "basic" D&D variant then 13th Age is where I go for my "advanced" jollies, although that's not the most accurate label as most of the complexity is on the players' side, and the rest of the game is quite simple. Indeed, that's what first attracted me to the game; I was looking for a compromise between the lighter D&D variants that I prefer and the more complex approaches that are popular with others in my group.

Having now run a campaign -- or rather half of one; I hope to revisit it in 2015 -- I can say that 13th Age is a successful compromise, although I know a couple of my players are not as convinced as I am. I haven't experienced it as a player yet -- Stuart has hinted at running a few sessions -- but as a gamemaster it is almost perfect.

Half of the ruleset is a light and uncomplicated variant of the d20 system with the stacks of modifiers and situational mechanics stripped back to a minimum, almost to the level of Basic D&D. Monsters are even simpler in terms of numbers, having only five or six statistics rather than a full statistic block; 13th Age uses the space saved to give each monster a unique and interesting special ability that is easy to remember and -- in most cases -- fun for the gamemaster. I keep banging on about the 13th Age kobolds but they're an excellent example of the system's approach; I have never had as much fun running monsters in a fantasy game as I have in 13th Age.

The other half of the game consists of airy fairy storytelling mechanics of the sort one would expect to see in Fate rather than the offspring of D&D. Every character gets One Unique Thing, a non-mechanical feature that places them in the setting as someone special; in 13th Age everyone is a Special Snowflake and I should hate that but in play it involves the players in creating the setting, involves the player-characters in the setting, and helps to generates story. Each character also has a number of relationship dice representing their connection to powerful non-player-characters in the setting; these have various effects, from generating story details on the fly -- who sent the assassins? -- to giving the GM hints about what could happen in the next session. I will be honest and say that this is one part of the game that I found difficult to grasp and exploit to its full potential but I think that's a problem of explanation rather than concept; the rulebook needs more examples of how the relationship dice are supposed to work at the table.

All this results in a game that is recognisable as a version of D&D but with a lot of back-and-forth at the table, not in the sense of rules arguments -- hello Pathfinder! -- but more in terms of a series of "what if this happens?" or "how about my character does this?"; this is what makes role-playing games unique and what they should always be about but I think a stricter ruleset can obfuscate things and one can forget to have fun. D&D4 was designed to be robust and fair but 13th Age tells you to buy the biggest d6 you can and slap it down in the middle of the table to use as the Escalation Die and add tension to battles. I know which approach I prefer.

Next: rampant Savagery!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #6

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and Red Box non-AD&D -- although by that time it came in a big black box -- but neither suited me, and in recent years I've played D&D4 and Pathfinder and have had even less success getting on with them. There was always something -- overcomplicated rules, counter-intuitive mechanics, optimisation metagames, THAC0 -- that got in the way and overwhelmed any desire I had to play D&D. Back when D&D was the only, er, game in town players made do or converted it to their  liking but I've lived and played through an era of great choice so the easier option was to give up and play something else.

I was fortunate that my interest in role-playing games was rekindled just as the old-school renaissance began and retroclones started to appear; I may not have the same nostalgic interest in D&D that the pioneers of those two related movements have but they produced and continue to produce a great deal of varied content that is not beholden to a single publisher's interests or vision. There are more versions of D&D around and in print than ever before and as such there's one for everyone.

Well, sort of.

I don't know if I've found my perfect version of D&D but thanks to the proliferation of clones and remixes there are two close contenders, one of which is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I have to confess a little bit of bias in that LotFP has paid my bills on occasion but part of the reason I've produced content for the game is because I like it a lot. It's a variant of [INSERT COLOUR HERE] Box D&D so it has the mechanical simplicity that I have grown to prefer over time, but because it was designed within the past few years it has also eliminated or modified many of the rules and assumptions of D&D that I find weird and archaic. I won't go into too much detail on the rules because you can read them for yourself for free but it is enough to say that they are almost perfect for what I want for an old-school approach to dungeoneering.

The other big draw is the setting implied by the rules. Where D&D has sort of hovered around a romanticised Middle Ages LotFP instead rolls the clock forward to something like the early modern period -- it could have been called Pirates and Puritans -- and is far from romanticised, presenting a game where magic is dangerous and untrustworthy, where elves are burned by holy water, wizards can end the world with a fluffed summoning spell, and mirror image is not the illusion one may expect but instead pulls alternate versions of the spellcaster from other realities for the sole purpose of dying in combat. It is a dark, strange, and nasty reflection of something almost twee in its familiarity and I love it for that.

There is one downside to that implied setting, and to the game as a whole, and it is that the experience system is more or less unchanged from that of Basic D&D -- go into holes in the ground, kill orcs, and take their stuff -- but the game itself seems to want to be Solomon Kane and I'm not sure the two approaches are compatible. It cannot be an insurmountable problem because enough people play LotFP as intended without any trouble but I always struggle with what I perceive to be a clash in tone. The author James Raggi has mentioned in the past that if he were to do another edition he would change the experience system so perhaps it's not just me, although such a change would distance the game even further from its forbears, and if the whole idea is to play a version of D&D that I like then that's a problem and I may as well just play RuneQuest.

Except I like LotFP more than I like RuneQuest. All that griping and philosophical hand wringing aside, I can put up with one small mechanical niggle if I don't think about it or if I compromise by using an abstract levelling system like that of Dragonlance: Fifth Age; it is not enough of a flaw that it tarnishes what is for me a sharp, efficient, and evocative interpretation of Dungeons and Dragons.

Next: to be this good takes Ages.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #7

As if to prove that my top ten is not all nostalgic waffling, my seventh favourite role-playing game ever was published this century, is one that I do not own, and is one that I have played only twice, and that was four years ago.

Twice? Four years ago? What kind of skullduggery is this?

Well, the truth is that if I had played Cold City any more than I have to date it is possible that it would be higher in my list than it is, because the thrill I felt when playing it was much like that I felt when I first played my number one game. It is that good. Or rather, I think it is that good, it just has one near-fatal flaw.

The default setting for the game is Berlin just after the Second World War and the players take the roles of members of a special unit dedicated to rooting out Nazi secrets of a more esoteric sort. It's sort of like B.P.R.D. 1946, except each player-character is torn -- or perhaps not -- between their loyalty to the Reserve Police Agency and their own national government; no two player-characters can represent the same Allied power so competing agendas are in play right from the start.

On top of that each character has a personal goal that can clash with or complement those of their home nation, and a pool of trust points that must be spent on the other player-characters in anticipation of the game to come; in brief, if a player-character you trust helps you during the game you can use those trust points when attempting to complete the task or action, but if they turn on you -- perhaps as a result of competing secret objectives -- those same points can be used against you!

The system is a simple one. Characters are defined by three attributes and a handful of traits and all tests are based on rolling a number of ten-sided dice equal to the relevant attribute, augmented by traits and trust points but reduced by disadvantages or injury. Rolling is reserved for significant events and the success or failure of a roll can affect the character, leading to the development of a new trait; for example a firefight may be resolved in a single opposed roll, with the loser -- if not killed or incapacitated -- gaining "niggling shoulder wound" as a negative trait that would affect relevant rolls from then on.

I could be getting that wrong as it has been four years since I played it and I've never read the rules, but that's more or less how we played it. The point is that the mechanics are simple and get out of the way of the fun stuff, which is juggling all the different, often opposing, objectives while trying to stop some horrible Nazi occult weapon escaping into the Berlin streets, where it is of no benefit to Uncle Sam a danger to civilisation.

The simple addition of both a trust mechanic and reasons for player-characters to distrust each other lifts this great little title above most other investigative horror type games. With that said, why have I not played it more often and why is it not higher in the list? The simple answer -- as Stuart says in one of the summaries linked above -- Cold City doesn't lend itself well to campaign play; given enough time characters can become long lists of special traits that can be applied in some combination to any task and the system falls apart a little as a result. I enjoy the game too much to let it end up like that, so that's why I haven't played it since 2010.

That said, it must be about time for another go.

Next: Dungeons and Dragons' red-headed step-child, but not the one you think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #8

After my tentative and fumbling experiences with Fighting Fantasy I didn't play another role-playing game for about five or six years. Instead there was a bit of a diversion as I contracted discovered the Games Workshop affliction hobby through the mighty HeroQuest then got stuck into Space Marine, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000. One day my friend Tim came to me and said something along the lines of "if you like orcs with guns you'll love this" and he was not wrong.

I fell in love with Shadowrun and it was my group's main game for years before we moved on to something you'll be seeing later in the top ten. The mix of fantasy and cyberpunk rubs a lot of people the wrong way but it never bothered me, perhaps because I was already blending genres with 40K or perhaps because Shadowrun was -- aside from some dodgy early 90's anime -- my introduction to cyberpunk, so I didn't know any better.

It also helps that it is coherent and consistent and that the authors haven't just mashed magic and elves and neon and mirrorshades together without thought. It seems an odd thing to say about a game like Shadowrun but the mix of genres makes a sort of sense; for example, the more metal one puts into one's body -- in the form of cybernetic limbs, and so on -- the more detached from one's own life-force one becomes and since magic is tied in with such forces, the use of magic becomes more difficult, more dangerous, or even impossible. As such, magicians need to be careful about modifying their bodies and even -- here's the consistency again -- about getting shot too many times, because it doesn't matter where the metal comes from or whose choice it was to put it there.

There's something pleasing about this logical approach, even if it seems contradictory in a game about the return of magic to the world. It feels good to know that if an enemy wizard casts a spell, it is possible to trace that spell back to him and -- if he hasn't taken the right precautions -- enact sorcerous vengeance. It means that games of Shadowrun feel like puzzles; it's not about action -- although using a helicopter to take on a dragon is always going to be a laugh -- but about planning and trying to work out what kind of defences the target has, how to deal with them, and how to respond to the inevitable countermeasures. In a sense every adventure is the Tomb of Horrors, except even if you survive some git in a sharp suit is going to double cross you when you get back to base.

That kind of focus isn't for everyone and while emergent narratives can and do happen the bulk of the game will be mission-based, at least at the start of a campaign. That said, the game Tim ran for all those years back in the Britpop era was more or less a sandbox as we roamed Seattle, picking up jobs and putting powerful noses out of joint, until it sort of dwindled away as open-ended games tend to do.

If I were writing this series of posts ten years ago Shadowrun would have a higher position in the top ten and the reason that it doesn't is that as I've aged I've become less tolerant of everything complicated rulesets. The core mechanics are simple and robust -- roll a number of six-siders and for every one that equals or exceeds a target number you get a success, with the more successes rolled the better -- but Shadowrun's scope is so broad and the applications of those core mechanics so varied and situational that it can be overwhelming. It can sometimes feel like a number of individual games -- one for the gunbunny, one for the rat shaman, one for the hacker, and one for the getaway driver -- all using the same rules, sort of like playing all the World of Darkness games at once.

I've played in games like that and they've been great fun but they're also beyond my ability to, er, run these days, and that's one major reason why I haven't played Shadowrun in years. Every so often I think about digging out the second edition rulebook and running a short campaign, or perhaps buying the latest edition and giving it a try, but that complexity always puts me off. All that said, back when Tim was in charge we tended to ignore the hacking and vehicle sub-games anyway; maybe that's all I have to do in order to walk the neon-drenched streets of future Seattle once more.

Next: willkommen nach Berlin.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Happy Birthday, Little Grey Waffle Maker

I had been a Sega man up until the release of the so-called 32-bit -- did any of us know what that meant? -- consoles but then everything changed. Sega followed up the Mega Drive -- we don't talk about the 32X -- with the Saturn and that looked good, but where was the old enemy? Where was Nintendo? It turned out Nintendo was a year or so behind everyone else but into the void -- twenty years ago today -- stepped a new challenger.

Sony was an unknown quantity. My father always bought Sony electronics because he had a strong and strange conviction that one could always trust the quality of Sony gear -- where that came from I don't know, nor do I know why he pronounced it "Sonny" -- but I had no reason to believe that the company would be any good at games. Even so I wasted a lot of time and thought weighing up the relative merits of the PlayStation and Saturn, before coming to a decision based on some dubious criteria.

The first was that I was -- and still am -- an Amiga fan and a lot of the better Amiga developers seemed to move over to the PlayStation; indeed, the mighty Psygnosis got absorbed into the Sony hive collective a couple of years before the console launched. This is not a bad reason to favour a games platform, but the other is somewhat more embarrassing; I thought the black discs looked cool.

When a wealthy relative gave me a silly amount of money for a birthday gift I took it straight down to HMV on Western Road in Brighton and bought a console, some controllers, a multitap, an Atari arcade collection containing the original Gauntlet, and the brilliant Tekken 2. Maybe I should have put the money aside and saved it for something sensible, but I'm glad I didn't; the PlayStation was a great little console and one that brought me and my friends hours of joy, and a few years later begat one of my favourite games machines ever.

And those black discs still look cool.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #9

The first entry in my top ten may have come as a bit of a surprise but this next one is perhaps more predictable, if only because like many British gamers of a certain age, if you cut me I bleed Fighting Fantasy.

The Americans all seem to have started their fantasy adventures with The Keep on the Borderlands, but for us on our rainy, windswept isle, it was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Well, for me it was Masks of Mayhem and that blasted prairie fire, but my point holds. It was this wonderful -- some entries less so, but on average they were ace -- series of books that fostered my interest in role-playing games, although they weren't rpgs as such.

One day my friend Gareth showed me a new gamebook he'd bought, one that was a bit different to the others in that it was for multiple people to play at once. We sat in his dining room and took turns reading it and trying to make sense of it; we didn't grasp the need for a gamemaster so our fumbling attempt to lead Armstrong, Bigneck, and Crystal -- adventurers, not solicitors -- through a battle with some ORCS wasn't quite right but I still count it as the first time I played an rpg.

Is it nostalgia then that puts Fighting Fantasy at number nine in my list? In part, yes, but I think there's a lot to be said for the game itself, not least the simplicity of the system, which is more or less a straight port of that of the gamebooks without much in the way of modification for a multiplayer setting. This limitation becomes a problem in campaign play -- there are no rules for experience or healing between adventures because those weren't relevant concerns for the gamebooks -- but I'm not sure the original game was ever intended for such; the advanced version tries to remedy this flaw and expand the game into a "proper" rpg and is a brilliant failure, although the second edition is much more successful.

A Fighting Fantasy character has three statistics: SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK. That's it. STAMINA is the character's health, as one would expect, and is reduced by damage and restored by scoffing food, a mechanic that is absurd but also endearing. SKILL is the character's active ability; if Bigneck wants to jump across a crevasse he rolls 2d6 and tries to get a result equal to or less than his SKILL score, and if he wants to hit an ORC he rolls 2d6, adds it to his SKILL, then compares that total with that of the ORC, who has done the same. LUCK is what it says on the tin; does the rope bridge break as Crystal crosses it? Roll 2d6 and compare to Crystal's LUCK to find out; where it differs from SKILL is that LUCK diminishes each time it's used, a beautiful little mechanical twist.

That -- aside from a PIXIE-sized handful of specific combat and situational mechanics -- is Fighting Fantasy in a nutshell. It's basic -- and oh, how I've come to appreciate simple rules -- and yes, it's also blunt, but it's more than good enough for an evening's gaming when there's nothing else to play, or for those rare and joyous occasions when one is introducing new people to role-playing games.

I'm going to be bold and say that Fighting Fantasy is the best introductory rpg there is. The rules are simple and make sense, and the book is full of good, jargon-free advice and even two complete adventures. When those are done there's The Riddling Reaver -- a campaign that's much better than I remembered -- and about sixty gamebooks from which to draw further inspiration. Second-hand copies of the book are abundant and cheap but even so this is one game that should always be in print. I don't play it often these days but that does not diminish my affection one smidgeon.

Next: buckets of dice, a machine gun, and a dragon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #10

A while ago I posted a list of the top fifty role-playing games of all time, as voted by the readers of arcane back in 1996. At the time I promised I'd post my own top ten list but that didn't happen because I wanted to give it a bit more thought. It is possible that I've given it too much thought, as you will soon see.

Anyway, at number ten is Dragonlance: Fifth Age.

No, really, it is.

I suspect that this game was doomed from the beginning. It was always going to be a tough sell even if its troubled publisher didn't implode a year or so after the game's release. Existing Dragonlance enthusiasts were asked to convert to a new -- although not unrelated, as we shall see -- ruleset to continue playing in their beloved setting. Except it wasn't quite the same setting because of a soft reboot killing everyone off and pushing the timeline thirty years into the future, the kind of move that never, ever alienates long-standing fans, honest. Just ask DC Comics. Those who already hated Dragonlance for its infamous railroading, its twee eschatology, and all of the embarrassing dragon sex were never going to be won over by the new game, and as it shirked dice in favour of cards, cynical gamers saw it as a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Magic: The Gathering, a game that was at the time killing the role-playing industry, which is why no one has published an rpg since.

I'm not much of a Dragonlance fan myself -- I read some of the novels as a child, but I got better -- and I've never played the game in its intended setting but even so I like the system a lot. Enough to put it in my top ten, but you already knew that.

One of the main things I like about DL5A is how its components and mechanics perform multiple functions. For example, the player's hand of cards is the engine that drives the game, and it is an elegant and versatile engine, like the [INSERT REFERENCE THAT MAKES IT LOOK LIKE I KNOW ABOUT CARS AND THAT]. The hand size represents the character's general ability, like character level in D&D, and increases in size as the character completes adventures, giving them more options when they need to complete a task. The hand also represents the character's health, with cards being discarded -- and hand size decreasing -- to absorb or deflect damage. Yes, it's not much of a leap from how D&D levels are associated with hit dice and how hit dice generate hit points, but putting all of that in a set of cards held in the player's hand rather than in a set of numbers on a piece of paper lends it a pleasing tactile immediacy.

The cards themselves take the place of dice with their values added to a character's statistic and the total compared against a target number, but there's more to them than a simple numeric value. Cards are organised into suits and certain suits work better for certain tasks or with certain statistics, giving the character a bonus when those synergies come into play, the rough equivalent of a critical success or an exploding roll in Savage Worlds, except with a set of cards there's an element of planning for success more akin to the spending of action or story points in one of those fancy story games the cool kids bang on about.

Cards are also divided into black, white, and red types -- matching the three moons and three wizard groups of the setting -- allowing for positive, negative, and neutral readings or even something as prosaic as determining which moon is in ascendance, if you're playing in the stock setting. Each card also features a description of a personality type, a feature that has a bit of the feel of a cheesy inspirational poster to it -- it is Dragonlance after all -- but is nonetheless useful for determining non-numeric details in the game; flirting with a duchess at a ball may succeed or fail based on the value of the cards played but the duchess' personality -- beyond her susceptibility to flirting -- can be generated there and then by one of the cards played to woo her. Is Duchess Siebenundachtzig clever and demure or belligerent and hungry?

The game doesn't just switch cards for dice; it makes the cards earn their place by providing all sorts of different options for task resolution, character definition, and storytelling. It's strong design rather than the half-arsed gimmick it could have been.

I also like that the mechanics are player-focussed. For example, when a player-character attacks an orc the player, er, plays cards to hit the monster; when the orc hits back, cards are played to avoid the attack. I've seen lots of praise of late for Monte Cook's Numenera taking this approach but DL5A was doing it in 1996. To be fair, even Pathfinder has had official rules for something similar for at least a couple of years but Pathfinder isn't -- SPOILERS -- anywhere near my top ten, so we'll just note how much I like player-focussed mechanics and how they let the gamemaster get on with running the world rather than the rules, then we'll move on.

The game takes an abstract, story-based approach to money and equipment -- rather than waste game time on shopping, characters are assumed to have what would be reasonable for them to have -- and to experience too, with characters increasing in ability upon the completion of an adventure rather than through accumulation of points. I don't think it's an inherent improvement over keeping strict records of every copper piece and experience point but it is the kind of laissez faire approach I favour when I run games so it's good to see in a rulebook from TSR of all people.

Of course, DL5A is by no means perfect. Few things are, aside from banoffi pie and John Carpenter's Halloween. The game's freefrom magic system is flexible and rewards inventiveness -- and seems a little inspired by Ars Magica but I may be way off, having never played that venerable game -- but is also a bit vague and more practical guidance would be useful. At the same time it's full of arbitrary restrictions left over from the setting's origins in AD&D; if a spellcaster can generate a fireball then they can't also heal the friend they caught in the blast, because those are different types of magic even if the old arcane-divine divide doesn't exist as such.

(It can become a bit of a philosophical rabbit hole if you let it. A wizard can't cast healing spells because healing is a life effect and wizards can't affect life forces, but blowing someone up with a fireball is affecting their life force, isn't it? ISN'T IT?)

The game also suffers from some wonky maths here and there; for example, by the rules using a sword to hit a cave bear is an epic feat equivalent to defeating the setting's Satan analogue in single combat. Oh dear. That said, the game's glitches are minor and a couple of sensible house rules fix them. Indeed, the core system was used again for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game in 1998 and tweaks were made to alleviate some of DL5A's rules problems, amendments that can be transferred over to the original game with little difficulty.

A revised or second edition of the game -- perhaps divorcing it from the setting -- would have been welcome but TSR's demise and the arrival of D&D3 put that out of the question. As far as I know it hasn't been cloned and I imagine the big obstacle to doing so would be the deck of cards. I have seen similar systems -- such as Tab System Classic -- that have used standard playing cards but that approach misses the extra functions of the deck and doesn't show all of the game's strengths, of which it has many. Those many strengths are why Dragonlance: Fifth Age is my tenth favourite rpg ever. In 2014.

Next: two dice, a pencil, and an eraser.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inside Out

Click on it. Look at it.

It's impressive and clever and brilliant. From Phillipe Buchet and Jean-David Morvan's Sillage -- Wake in its English translation -- volume five.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Advanced Fighting Gumshoe

A few weeks ago my group had a go at Gumshoe -- why do they capitalise it? Is it an acronym? Are they shouting? -- with The Esoterrorists and in the past few days Doctor Bargle has been thinking about alternative skill systems for Advanced Fighting Fantasy. As is the way with these things some cross-fertilisation occurred in my addled mind and I started to wonder how a Gumshoe -- I'm not doing it -- type system would work with AFF.

The first edition of AFF has a skill system that could be considered a little bit broken. In the basic game a character has a SKILL -- okay, I'm a hypocrite, what of it? -- score that is used to determine if she could jump a crevasse, climb a wall, or hit an ORC; for general use 2d6 is rolled and a success is a result that is equal to or less than the character's SKILL, while in combat the roll is added to the score to generate an Attack Strength -- italicised but not capitalised, because I don't know why -- that is compared with that of the opponent. Simple.

In AFF special skills are introduced. If a character wants to be better at jumping her player can spend points and add those to the character's SKILL score to get a new value, so Alice of Zengis may have a SKILL of 9 and spend two points to get Jump 11. Fair enough, except the number of points available to spend is equal to the character's SKILL score, so someone who has a good score gets more points than someone who doesn't and their skills will all be better too, in a spectacular cascading clusterfudge of wonky maths.


In Graham Bottley's second edition of AFF starting SKILL is not random and does not affect the availability of skill points, the same number of which are available to every character. This is all much more sensible and doesn't need fixing, but I will propose an alternative anyway.

There are many versions of Gumshoe -- stop it -- but in general active skill -- something like jumping, climbing, or fighting -- use succeeds on a d6 roll above a number determined by the gamemaster; skill points are spent before rolling to reduce the target number -- or add to the roll; I'm not sure which and I'm not sure it matters -- to increase chances of success. If the difficulty is 4+ a player can spend three points for an automatic success, for example.

Let us now put AFF in one Brundle pod and Gumshoe in another and observe the results. Open your copybook now.

In this misbegotten hybrid of two games systems that were doing quite well enough without my tinkering Alice of Zengis would have a SKILL of 9 and Jump of 2 as before, but that latter value represents not a constant bonus as it does in AFF but rather a number of points that can be spent to influence a jumping roll. In other words, Alice could spend two points to give her an effective SKILL of 11 for one jump or one point for a SKILL of 10 on two different occasions; once out of points Alice would have to rely on her raw ability for all her leaping needs.

The pool of eight or so skill points given in AFF2 is a bit stingy in this context so I would perhaps allow sixteen to twenty points to be allocated during character generation. Spent skill points would be restored at  the end of the adventure -- however that is defined -- just as LUCK is in AFF2.

I have a suspicion that this is an elaborate fix for a problem that doesn't exist -- a charge I've often laid at the Gumshoe system, as it happens -- and it seems a bit of a mean-spirited limitation, or "nerfing" as the Colonials would have it. I also have no idea how or if it would work in play as I haven't played AFF this century but it was buzzing around in my head, clamouring for release, so there it is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Three Ways Wrong Oreo Ice Cream Milkshake

I hate Oreos. They're dry and tasteless things that have only one redeeming feature: they're not unpleasant as an ingredient in an ice cream milkshake. The Oreo is the poor American cousin of the majestic Bourbon and I began to wonder what the latter would be like in a milkshake, so I made one.

This recipe makes enough to 75% fill a pint glass or one of those fancy metal milkshake things.

It is "three ways wrong" because this Oreo ice cream milkshake does not contain Oreos, ice cream, or milk.

Stuff to Put in It:

About 300ml of soy milk.
3-4 scoops of vanilla frozen yoghurt. I recommend Lick if you can find it near you, otherwise Yoomoo is an adequate alternative.
3-4 Bourbon biscuits, broken.

How to Make It:

Chuck all the ingredients and DESTROY for around ten seconds, longer if you want it smoother.

Bosh! Done!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Forgotten Phandelver

Undeterred by our previous experience with the game, tomorrow my gaming group will have another go at Dungeons and Dragons 5, this time using the mini campaign from the boxed set, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

There's no way I'm going anywhere near the Forgotten Realms though, so we're going to be adventuring somewhere else instead.

That's better.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Spiders are intelligent. At some basic level everyone knows this, even if they don't admit it to themselves, because admitting it invites all sorts of existential horror.

The little ones aren't much for conversation or philosophy but have a keen and innate understanding of geometry and structural engineering that dwarfs that of any other species except for perhaps the, er, dwarves.

The big ones -- the ones the size of people -- are as intelligent as people, if not more so. The phase spiders are geniuses but they're also weird, even by the standards of spiders, because they're thinking in more than one dimension at once.

The problem is that spiders are obsessed with order and see everything in terms of its place in the grand structure of the universe -- thanks China Miéville! -- so when they try to interact with other sentient species they come across as detached and a bit alien at best, and AIEE! MONSTERS! at worst.

Being clever sorts the spiders realised that they needed some sort of go-between to help them deal with other species and convey their great plans without the encounter descending into stabbing, which is just the sort of inconvenient and tiresome business that upsets the order of things. No spider would be able to deal with the limited and erratic viewpoints of the non-arachnid species for long so they created the ettercaps, hybrids of spider and humanoid and the intended ambassadors of spider kind.

Ettercaps are created when a humanoid is captured -- elves and orcs are favoured because they're the most chaotic and removing them is seen as an efficient way to tidy up the universe -- and encased in a cocoon which is then subjected to a phasey-wasey process that changes the creature within. A few days later the cocoon rips open and an ettercap is released.

Alas, ettercaps are frightening creatures in their own right and despite their best attempts at peaceful discourse often invoke the AIEE! MONSTERS! response -- and that's before anyone finds out how they're made -- but the spiders are working on that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Avenged Twofold

This got leaked today.

I think I'm more excited about this one than I was the first.

Over past few months people have expressed worries about the main actors coming to the ends of their contracts, or deciding that they didn't want to play superheroes any more, and other such doom-laden prophecies. The general sense seems to be that it would be a disaster of  Onslaught-like proportions if Robert Downey Jr refused to play Tony Stark again.

The thing is, it doesn't matter in the slightest.

This issue came out in 1965, just two years after the first issue of The Avengers, and in it the founder members decide to leave the team and new heroes are introduced to the world. There was a great gnashing of teeth and much moaning about the inevitable death of the comic -- the letters pages for months afterwards read much like the message boards and forums of today -- but what in fact happened was that the title carried on and is still going today, and the team reshuffle has happened again and again over the years, so much so that it became one of the classic Things Avengers Do, in the same way that the X-Men are always playing baseball.

Films are different aren't they? Audiences won't go and see a blockbuster full of new characters will they? Well, Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, a film full of new characters -- none of which had any solo films to introduce them to the general non-comics-reading audience, as the Avengers did -- and it turned out to be one of the most successful films of all time. They have proved that it doesn't matter if normal people have never heard of Rocket Raccoon or Drax the Destroyer, and by the same token as long as Avengers 4 is good it won't matter if the main characters are Doctor Druid, Firestar, and Triathlon.

Okay, maybe not Triathlon.

Besides, the new Avengers team introduced in that issue includes Hawkeye -- who we know already -- and Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch -- who both happen to be featured in Avengers 2 -- so if Marvel does want to do something similar with the film franchise, I think they have it well in hand.

Anyway, enough of that. I didn't realise until today that I hadn't posted anything all month. Oops.

Next: ettercaps.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Throw Your Hands Up at Me

Benito Cereno, writer of excellent comics, proposed the following exercise on twitter earlier this month:

My knowledge and experience of the Justice League is based on some vague memories of Grant Morrison's run on JLA in the mid-to-late-90's and a small number of Justice League Unlimited episodes, so I was never going to be any good at picking an all-star team.

So I cheated.

It's a good team, although I suspect it's also a leadership crisis waiting to happen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Still Bored of the Dragon Queen

Yesterday my good friend and occasional game-master Ben told us a little bit about what he thinks of Wizards of the Coast's new campaign for their new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Today he tells us about chapters two and three, in which the quality improves to such an extent that Hoard of the Dragon Queen can be counted alongside Masks of Nyarlathotep and the first two thirds of The Enemy Within as one of the greatest role-playing campaigns ever written.

I am dissembling of course. It's terrible.

Episode 2 – scouting the cultist's lair and liberating the prisoners.

I skipped the part at the start of this in which a disciple of the captured monk gives the pcs a quest (the disciple has a boxed text to be read out whilst Nighthill has no scripted words) since the pcs already had been given the mission from Nighthill. Instead the pcs would see the poor monk (whom I had crucified – it wasn't clear in the text – but it was from the art) and seek to liberate him.

The pcs had captured a cultist in Episode 1. Between interrogating him, and the robes of dead cultists, they developed a plan to pose as cultists to enter the camp. They eliminated the rear-guard stragglers of the cultist army and got some new robes.... And at the "gate" bluffed their way in on their wagon. Their ruse was to be posing as cultists who were collecting the prisoners for the sacrifice. It involved Pythonesque dancing and singing to "All Hail Tiamat", drawing on the fact Manoj’s pc Lorseen Liadon had chosen "Cult of the Dragon Infiltrator" as a background which meant he had infiltrated the ranks of the Cult of the Dragon previously, spying on the organization for quite some time, giving him some familiarity with its inner workings and customs.

As a result he had developed a second identity as an initiate of the cult, enough of a facade to blend in as a simple grunt or servant. This was roleplayed to the hilt. We had a great hoot with the pcs entering the cultist camp, spreading malicious rumours to different "wings" (sects) of Tiamat (blue, black, and red sects were encountered) an attempt to sow seeds of discord to foment internal strife and do the party's job for them (which they think should earn them xp whenever a cultist is killed by another as a result of their ruse!)....They managed to bamboozle the dragonclaw guards (it would be nice to have some blurb about dragon claws too – their culture, how they relate to half dragons, dragonborn, kobolds etc)....the guards are bamboozled by the pc's bluster, sending them off to clean their livery and polish their weapons, liberating the prisons, knocking out the whingers, and hiding the malcontents within the covered wagon, and having others up front.

They then travelled to the crucified prisoners and manage to get them down in the twilight and vamoose. They take out the gate guards and plant some torn fabric from a rival claw of Tiamat on the dead cultists.... To help fuel tensions they have tried to exacerbate in their brief visit. Officially the monk was meant to tell them "Leave me alone, I have it all covered....don’t rescue me or you will spoil my cover and my master­plan to spy on the cult" which I told the guys....memories of the Black Knight "come back here and I will bite your legs off"... "it's only a flesh wound".... With the monk absconding later despite being tortured and reduced to near­death....the PCs return to Greenest and report, and ker­ching they level up to Level 3!

[We had great fun with this section of the adventure. Once we'd established that the cultists used an elaborate series of hand signals and body movements as their secret greeting we decided to use that to our advantage and spring surprise attacks on them while they were busy gesticulating; Ben didn't have to let us get away with that -- and I suspect that the text of the adventure wouldn't allow it -- but he was having as much fun as we were.

The crucified monk was also hilarious but for all the wrong reasons. I can't believe nonsense like that got into a published adventure, let alone the first major adventure release for the new edition of Dungeons and ruddy Dragons.]

Episode 3: entering and looting the dragon hatchery!

The PCs are asked by the monk Leosin to enter the cave complex at the back of the camp and if possible steal the dragon eggs if they are still there. He is aware the bulk of the army will move on but that the eggs will be left behind, guarded, since they are close to hatching .....though later we discussed the import of them hatching/not hatching for the purpose of the plot.... The Draconomicon I finally referenced today tells me it takes a wyrmling from a hatched dragon egg 100 years to mature into an adult dragon.... 100 years – an immediate tipping of the scales (boom boom) in favour of dragonkind!

This was our first "dungeon­bash" in D&D5. I didn't let their ruse as cultists work – not being of draconic origin, they were attacked throughout the complex. I made the entrance to the chief npc area a secret door thus the pcs were funnelled into the fungi forest, bat/stirge area... It was not described in an atmospheric fashion.... And it didn't make much sense.... Why have your larder so close to the stench of the rubbish, as well as the stirges and violet fungi? It didn't!

[Ye gods, the dungeon. You know those first dungeons you made back when you first started playing when you were ten or so? The ones that made no sense at all but were still great fun? The cultists' temple complex was just like that, except without the fun bit.

Well no, that's not fair. It was fun, but only in the sense that we had a good laugh about how dangerous it must be to be a cultist of Tiamat. Who decided it would be a good idea to trap the curtain in the doorway to the larder? Has there been a spate of food thefts? How do the cultists even get in and out of the temple when the second room is full of homicidal fungus?]

The pcs slogged their way through the combats. Maya's pc had been changed after Episode 1 from a bard into a sword and board fighter – giving the party a "face". Which was just as well – since she was able to act as a blocker in combat. Sleep is still a really powerful spell at 1st level - taking out hordes of kobolds within the complex. The fight later in the Temple to Tiamat was more deadly. The blue half dragon Langdedrosa Cyanwrath and his 3 berserker henchmen dragonclaws (I made them draconic creatures) were a tough drawer for a resource depleted party... yes they had taken a short rest prior to the encounter... but still it was nearly a lethal encounter ....I opted not to use his breath power.... Otherwise it would have been curtains for the pcs... the first few rounds were brutal until Cyanwrath and one berserker were taken down.

Time was short after a late start that evening thus the dragon hatchery was run as an atmospheric encounter and no fighting happened there.

On to the trail of the cult....and trying to sandbox that as far as is possible!

Verdict so far:

On the positives ­ am liking D&D5 a lot overall. Need more variety in the monsters. Am hoping the Monster Manual does to critters what the 13th Age one does - making each unique (13th Age Kobolds RAWK! whilst so far in D&D5 they are so LAME!).

HotDQ....? Whilst having some hidden gems, it leaves a lot to be desired coming from professional game designers. It needed a serious playtest.... And really – I would have been far happier with a softback adventure with more depth/help and advice, a better layout, and no railroading! Some decent playtesting should have thrown up some serious problems with the design that should have been fixed before publication. I was despairing earlier in the week but now have worked out a way to make it work by the next session on Friday. Am very glad for the help so far from Hack and Slash – however I am now over­taking the blog's write up! ARGH!

Thanks Ben!

I like D&D5 too and I think it's a great shame that the first major adventure release is so poor. Not only is it full of nonsense like the crucified monk or the absurd deadliness of the cultists' hideout, but there are lots of instances of invalidating player choice, like having to escort refugees into danger for no good reason, or Cyanwrath's twin brother turning up to read his lines if the players manage to defeat Cyanwrath himself. It doesn't seem like the adventure was playtested at all; I rather suspect no one read it before publication either.

I have read worse adventures than Hoard of the Dragon Queen but I think it may be the worst I've ever played. To be fair we have enjoyed playing it but it's only because we've been subverting and ridiculing it as we go and if we took it seriously I suspect it would be a miserable slog. It is a terrible, awful adventure and it should be avoided.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bored of the Dragon Queen

Over the past couple of weeks my group has been playing the new fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The plan was that I was going to run The Lost Mine of Phandelver from the starter set but Ben -- our group's regular game-master -- got excited when Wizards released Hoard of the Dragon Queen, bought it, and has been running that instead.

It is fair to say that I have not been impressed by the campaign so far. Well, to be honest, from my perspective as a player it seems a rather shoddy adventure, but as I haven't read the book I can't say for certain. If only Ben would write a guest post about his experiences running the game.

Oh, hang on...

Ben in Norwich in 1625.
First there was the media buzz about this story….. and as Justin at the Alexandrian mentions in his review, it sounded initially like it would play like Masks of Nyarlathotep, as a node based adventure design….(and having run Masks this got me excited)….. plus many of us were excited by the possibilities/ hopes of D&D5 (simplified game design making it more playable and runnable than Pathfinder). On the latter- D&D5 is easier to run than PF – it wins.  But hell….on the first point, …. Has the adventure lived up to expectations? ……in short sadly no. Fortunately there is some online advice by Courtney Campbell at Hack and Slash which draws on some great material from Zak S as well on the sects of Tiamat. But it needs so much work to make it more exciting. Encounter design is weak, monsters are generic and all the same – nothing is learned from 13th Age critters or from dare I say it, D&D4 The Unmentionable encounter design. The layout of information is poor: npcs, story ideas are lost in the text: there are no side bars, a lack of boxing of text, no flow charts which could summarise how the rival factions of Tiamat get along or how they would respond to XYZ…..and no cultural information on the various new draconic races and their rivalries/ relationships/ culture (namely dragon claws and half dragons). Primarily it starts of in a silly fashion: PCs are railroaded into entering, at 1st level, a village under attack from an army and an adult dragon, and rescuing some villagers to then escort them through the village (not away) to the castle under attack from the dragon, and then be given missions GTA style from the Noble there (the art inside does not help here – instead of presenting him wounded and heroic, he looks like a toff, drinking and clean)…. And the railroad is never ending.  :/

However, there are lots of possibilities within the adventure and some hidden gems…. And despite the railroad parts, we have had fun, subverting the railroad and trying to open it up to other possibilities.

The Party:

Bran, a human cleric of Helm (played by Kelvin)

Cornelius Putsch, a Halfling shadow monk (played by Stuart)
Lorseen Liadon, an elven archer (played by Manoj)
Drako Ironfist, a dwarven wizard (played by Stuart’s son Seb)
Drasnia, a half-elven sword and board fighter (champion) (played by Stuart’s daughter Maya)

Episode 1: Entering Greenest

Entering a small town under siege from an attacking army of kobolds and cultists was a dangerous affair…..the players accepted their script (instinct was to flee)….and despite wanting to move refugees away from the carnage, they accepted the script to take refugees to the castle….. a few of them nearly died en route – it it dangerous at 1st level…. More so than in Pathfinder…. D&D5 like 13th Age and WFRP can be a little swingy. Then they met Lord Nighthill….the art jars with the scene/ moment… instead of being a man bloodied, wounded, looking like a war leader… he looks like a pompous toff with a deformed hand! Our gaming group are excellent at quickly spotting, and then calling such nonsense OUT…. Previous key npcs got immediately renamed/ laughed at… Nighthill was an immediate joke.

[The art shows Nighthill posing with a goblet of wine in one hand -- and a weird cube of flesh where his other hand should be -- so of course we imagined him doing the same; cue lots of in-character berating of the governor for getting drunk while his town burned down around him.]

The pcs did the GTA style side quests in Greenest, and with the aid of the random tables from Hack and Slash, there was more variety in the encounters….but given the fact there was an adult Blue Dragon flying about pulling its punches rather than levelling the town… it all felt a little contrived. Ditto the final part where Langdedrosa Cyanwrath the half-dragon (why didn’t the designers have a side bar/ boxed text on what the hell half dragons are, and their relationship to other draconic creatures (eg dragonborn)?) challenges a pc/ npc to a fight they cannot win. All felt too railroady. :/ Cornelius had a go (at this point Maya’s pc was a bard so the party’s only tank was the Halfling monk!)…and was reduced to negative HPs. He survived. Just. A meaner DM would have had him executed which would have been perfectly legitimate. :S

Ben will be back tomorrow with some more thoughts on the campaign. I have to agree with what he's said so far as the adventure seems to be jam-packed with staggering nonsense, like having to escort civilians towards the army from which they were fleeing in the first place. Even that is nothing compared to the rampant absurdity of the dragon cult's lair, but we'll leave that delight for tomorrow.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Fifty Best Role-playing Games Ever (in 1996)

In the mid-90's there was a gaming magazine called arcane and although it disappeared after twenty issues -- I am told that the demise of TSR and the consequent evaporation of TSR's advertising budget killed it -- I still have a great fondness for it. It was no White Dwarf but it had that characteristic Future Publishing slickness that made it fun to read.

The fourteenth issue came out just before Christmas in 1996 and presented the results of a survey to discover the readership's favourite role-playing games. The cover is a bit of a spoiler.

Here's the list in full. I doubt it's useful data in any way as it presents the opinions of a specific set of gamers -- those reading a British gaming magazine in 1996 -- but it may be an interesting historic curio. Or not.

50 - 2300AD
49 - Mechwarrior
48 - Dragon Warriors
47 - Fighting Fantasy
46 - James Bond 007
45 - Castle Falkenstein
44 - Cyberspace
43 - Dark Conspiracy
42 - Don't Look Back
41 - Golden Heroes
40 - Heroes Unlimited
39 - HOL
38 - Top Secret
37 - Ghostbusters
36 - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
35 - Twilight 2000
34 - Dream Park
33 - Werewolf: The Apocalypse
32 - Tunnels and Trolls
31 - Millennium's End
30 - Skyrealms of Jorune
29 - Aftermath
28 - Over the Edge
27 - Champions
26 - Palladium Fantasy
25 - Stormbringer
24 - Earthdawn
23 - Conspiracy X
22 - Rifts
21 - Judge Dredd
20 - Space 1889
19 - Ars Magica
18 - Feng Shui - arcane loved this game and mentioned it whenever possible; there's a new edition on the way soon.
17 - Bushido
16 - Mage: the Ascension
15 - Rolemaster
14 - GURPS
13 - Wraith: the Oblivion
12 - Pendragon
11 - Middle Earth Roleplaying
10 - Cyberpunk
9 - Star Wars
8 - Shadowrun
7 - Paranoia
6 - Vampire: the Masquerade
5 - RuneQuest
4 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
3 - Traveller
2 - AD&D
1 - TORG

Ha. No, first place went to Call of Cthulhu, of course. It's clear to see that White Wolf's dominance was in full swing at the time -- although pity poor Changeling! -- but there are also lots of the classics that I'm sure would appear in a similar list today.

There are also a fair few surprises in there. Paranoia is higher than I'd expect and when was the last time you saw someone talking about Millennium's End or Don't Look Back? 1996 perhaps.

I don't remember if I submitted a list at the time but for what it's worth here's my top ten as of September 2014... Ah, you know what? I think I'll save the top ten for another post.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rogues' Gallery

I have had a couple of requests for the non-player-character portraits I mentioned in my post about running Fantasy Flight's version of The Enemy Within so here are the pieces I drew for my game.

The Enemy Within II - NPC Portraits (600kb)

Each piece was drawn at about 10cm by 15cm and scanned at 300dpi. Aside from Robertus von Oppenheim and Olaf "One-Eye" these are all based on existing pieces of art in the Enemy Within II boxed set and are not of my own devising. I present them here as an aid for players of the campaign and I claim no ownership over them; in the case of Oppenheim and Olaf, I donate them to the community.